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Published: 2012/04/26
by Grace Beehler

Olafur Arnalds’ Living Room Songs from Reykjavik

In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he poses the question: “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” In music, the two – light and weight – are often, if not always, opposing forces. However, Iceland’s Olafur Arnalds has bridged the gap between light and weight: his delicate and ethereal compositions – full of chamber strings and piano but also computers and electronics – is capable of bearing the burden of the heaviest of weights while still simultaneously eluding one’s grasp.

Recently, Arnalds released Living Room Songs, an EP that he performed, recorded, and streamed live, in front of an audience, from his home in Reykjavik. He released one song per day, for a week.

“That [EP] was a little special,” Arnalds says of his Living Room Songs. “I wouldn’t say it was an album. It’s a collection of seven songs that I wrote in my apartment. We released each day, one song online for free, accompanied by a video of us playing the song. That’s not really a normal album. Only afterwards did we decide to release it as a normal album. Originally it was just seven songs and seven videos.”

In addition to the Living Room project, Arnalds scored the soundtrack for 2011’s “Another Happy Day,” a dark family drama starring Ellen Barkin, Demi Moore, and Kate Bosworth and won “Best Screenplay” at Sundance last year. The film’s director, Sam Levinson, sought out Arnalds to score the soundtrack and the film’s star, Ellen Barkin, persuaded the producers to use Arnalds for the score. The producers did hire Arnalds, but the only stipulation was that the soundtrack must be completed in two weeks.

“They sent me the rough edit of the film so I could get a feel for it,” Arnalds says. “They had been trying out some of my music already to the scenes they were cutting. The logical next step was for me to do the score for it. We said yes.”

And after losing his studio earlier that year, Arnalds did the whole score in his bedroom during the Christmas holiday.

“Keeping the film in mind, I had written some things [in keeping with the mood of the scenes], but I also had some songs that I hadn’t released,” Arnalds says. “The soundtrack wasn’t entirely influenced by the film.”

That said, Arnalds explains that the film did serve as inspirational fodder for his songwriting. When comparing writing the film score with his EP, Arnalds says that “It didn’t really differ from writing the film score. Except for the fact that I had a certain idea – a certain mood or direction – apart from that they were the same thing. Often, I think it’s easier to write for a film because you don’t have too much freedom to make choices.”

“It’s a sad film and it’s kind of depressing, but there is a good deal of humor in it,” he says of “Another Happy Day.” “I think the line that I was trying to walk was something that caught that melancholia without taking the humor away from it. It couldn’t be too serious, or too melancholic, because then it’s very hard to laugh at the next scene.”

Regarding the time constraints that Arnalds had in order to turn the soundtrack around, he says, “I’m happy with the results, but if I had been given some more time… I had to sacrifice some things and sometimes that’s okay but sometimes it forces you to compromise. But the biggest thing I had to sacrifice was some of the last [edits]. We spent all our time on the writing and recording, and then when you have to start mixing it, you realize you only have one day left. That was the hard part. But I think the songs are not too bad.”

When it comes to translating the studio work to the live setting, Arnalds says, “We try different things [when playing live]. On the last tour, we had a string quartet on stage, a piano, and a lot of electronics. All drums we turned into synthesized drums. We really try to make the live show work in a new way: we have a lot of lights and we try to not only sit on stage and play for people but also have a little treat for the eye. Not jumping around and dancing or anything, but we want to add something interesting.”

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